a good arc

In a recent (positive) review, I noted that the book in question didn’t have much of an arc. Another poet-critic called me out on that in the comments stream of the online version of the review, asking why books of poems had to have an arc. I completely agree with her—most books of poems are just collections of poems, and those who think their books have arcs often don’t.

The book in question—in which lack of arc did not seem to me a negative quality, rather a choice—was only notable as to arclessness because the poems were near-identical in form and had no titles, so one might expect a shifting of energies or topics in the poems to provide an emotional or organizational engine. The arclessness, however, supported the content and style-choices of the poem. It simply made engaging with the book a somewhat random matter as to where to begin and end. That too was appropriate to the book.

Come to think of it, that’s appropriate to most books. How many people actually read a book from beginning to end? I’ll often start with the short poems to see if I want to invest the time in the longer ones. (Except, that is, for the few times I’ve read manuscripts for contests, when I did read in order, at least for the first 10 pages, when, if the manuscript seemed weak, I would start skipping around.)

Arcs, themes, projects: these seem useful to poetry careers, possibly less so to poems. Need a book in time for tenure review: Work out a theme or project in advance, and fill it up. Writing a grant proposal? Focus the work around a subject matter, a form, a procedure or practice. Makes it easier to describe. Want to catch the attention of a first reader in a contest? Arcs, themes, projects: They make you appear serious. They make a reader feel comfortable.

They can also keep a poet too far inside her comfort zone.

A book with an arc: One pictures it in the shape of half a McDonald’s logo. Kicked like a football through some goalposts. Or shooting off, parabolic, into outer space.

That’s not to say that books with discernible arcs or themes are bad books. There are lots of good ones. Probably with the best ones, the poet didn’t realize she was writing a cohering set of poems till halfway through anyway. The worst ones usually have a couple of good poems and a lot of filler. Of course that’s true of non-arc, non-theme books too.

I’ve occasionally wanted to write books with arcs and never can. I decide to write all kinds of series and book-length projects, but I’m lucky if the parameters I choose produces a line or two in a single poem. Mostly I’m sitting there writing words and wishing I could remember how to write a poem.

Writing whole books is beyond me. I just accumulate poems over time and when I have enough that I’m not embarrassed to show people, I organize them for contrast, attitude, energy and subject matter into a manuscript—you know, that Larkin thing of organizing a book like a record album, the fast song, the slow song, the sad song, the happy song, the angry song, the idea being that on the off-chance that anybody actually reads it front to back, there’s less chance of them getting bored. 

So when I say a book doesn’t have an arc, I’m likely to mean it as praise.

Originally Published: April 26th, 2010

Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded the Editors' Prize for Feature Article from Poetry magazine in 2009.